Wednesday, May 15, 2013


I absolutely don't want to dismiss the IRS scandal -- it's utterly wrong that IRS staffers seem to have targeted would-be tax-exempt groups by ideology (although I question USA Today's premise that the average American, or even the average government bureaucrat outside D.C., viscerally associates the words "progress" and "progressive" with politics as readily as the highly publicized "tea party" and "9-12" are associated with the right, and should have targeted lefty groups accordingly). I think what these IRS employees did, if not malicious, was ignorant. Nothing like this should ever happen. Scrutiny should be evenhanded.

On the other hand, I question the premise that every American automatically sides with the targeted groups and comes to this story automatically despising the government agency whose employees did the targeting. Josh Marshall says of the scandal, "It’s about taxes, something everyone has an experience with and understands." Libby Spencer says, "Everybody loves a scandal and hates the IRS." Rachel Maddow says:
There is a reasonable fear by all of us, by any of us, that the kind of power the IRS has could be misused, that the IRS, as an agency of the federal government, could be used by the federal government to retaliate against political enemies or to try and shape political outcomes in some way. It's been done before, we're all reasonably worried it will happen again.
But "all of us" aren't political. Most Americans hate politics. Most Americans don't form (or join) political organizations.

Also, the victims here are not well liked -- and the villains are hated much less than you'd think.

Polling Report's survey results on the IRS aren't particularly recent, but the agency polls better than you'd expect. Here's how people rated the job being done by the IRS in a 2009 Gallup poll:
Excellent 5%; Good 35%; Only fair 36%; Poor 20: Unsure 5%
Not a resounding endorsement -- but did you think even 40% of respondents would say "Excellent" or "Good"? Did you think anyone would?

In a 2007 AP poll, 14% gave the IRS a "Very Favorable" rating and 42% a "Somewhat Favorable" rating. In a 2003 Fox News poll, 12% had "a great deal" of confidence in the IRS and 50% had "some" confidence. (By contrast, the numbers for "the news media" were 9% and 43%, and for "major business corporations" they were 6% and 43%.)

By contrast (again according to Polling Report), a 2013 CNN survey says that only 28% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the tea party, while 48% have an unfavorable opinion. There were similar numbers in a September 2012 ABC/Washington Post poll: 32% favorable, 46% unfavorable. And only 23% of Americans consider themselves tea party supporters, according to an April 2013 AP/GfK poll, while 62% aren't supporters. CBS, March 2013: 22% support, 65% not supporters.

I'm not saying this to argue that it doesn't matter what these IRS employees did, because who cares about the misuse of government power against a bunch of teabaggers. I'm saying that we shouldn't assume the general public looks as the teabaggers and says, "Hey, that could be me."

Those of us who are either political pros or mavens sometimes forget how apolitical most Americans are. And political pros based in D.C. or other big cities automatically assume that heartlanders see the teabaggers as just like them -- when the polls suggest otherwise.

So if there are few new revelations, and if wrongdoers are punished, the impact of this could be limited. Yes, those are big ifs. But this is not likely to be seen as IRS Versus the Real America just yet.


Libby Spencer said...

Interesting catch. I wouldn't have expected those polling numbers to be quite so high.

Chris Andersen said...

The saving grace in all of this will be, as it usually is, the Republican tendency to overplay their hand. They repeatedly take what are in fact reasonable cases of concern about government overreach and turn them into THE SCANDAL OF TEH CENTURY!

And the rest of the public who is, as you say, apolitical, just scratch their head and wonder what all the screaming is about.

Victor said...

I'm still wondering if it wasn't just a numbers game.

After 10 years of budget cuts, chronic understaffing, the Citizens decision, and after the Pee Potty craze started, it wasn't just the Koch's who formed tax exempt groups and funded them - a lot of smaller people banded together and formed their own groups.

The left had kind of spent its energy in 2008 electing Obama, and at least a nominally Democratic Congress, and so, there were probably less tax exempt groups.

I think it's like if the IRS audited all Major League Baseball pitchers, and the "right"-handed ones complained that they were looked at far more than "lefties."

Well, DUH!!!
There are more righties than lefties.

Libby Spencer said...

The scandal already falling apart. Just saw that liberal groups were targeted too. Haven't read it yet, but maybe there was no bias.

Victor said...

Then the IRS employees were doing their jobs.

Political groups shouldn't be able to claim "social welfare" tax exempt status.

Their politics may affect "social welfare," but the groups themselves have nothing to do with it, and so should be taxed the same as any other group that doesn't have anything to do with it.